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Burkina Faso minister says missing Quebec woman is alive, removed from territory

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  • MONTREAL — A Canadian woman and her Italian companion who have been missing in West Africa since last December are alive but no longer in the country, a senior minister with Burkina Faso’s government says.

    Communications Minister Remis Fulgance Dandjinou told Italian public broadcaster Rai that Edith Blais of Sherbrooke, Que., and her travel companion, Luca Tacchetto of Italy, are not in danger.

    In an interview broadcast on Friday, Dandjinou said he was hopeful the pair can be located and brought home safe and sound.

    Blais, 34, and Tacchetto, 30, were travelling by car in southwestern Burkina Faso and heading to Togo to do volunteer work with an aid group when they vanished around Dec. 15, 2018.

    Dandjinou’s comments this week backed up a recent report by Human Rights Watch that indicated the pair had been abducted and taken to Mali.

    That report, published March 22 on the advocacy group’s website, did not mention the fate of the two travellers.

    “While no armed Islamist group has taken responsibility for their abduction, they are believed to have been kidnapped and later taken to Mali,” said the report, titled “Abuses by Armed Islamist Groups in Burkina Faso’s Sahel Region,” citing an interview with Malian security sources on Jan. 13.

    In a January statement, Burkina Faso’s security minister referred to the pair’s disappearance as a kidnapping, but the Canadian government has not confirmed that, only saying officials haven’t ruled out any possibilities.

    Senior Liberal cabinet ministers met with Blais’ family in Quebec’s Eastern Townships region in January and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at the time he believed Blais was still alive.

    Earlier this year, another Canadian, Kirk Woodman, was found dead in northern Burkina Faso, close to the border with Mali and Niger. An executive with a Vancouver-based mining company, Woodman had been kidnapped a day earlier by gunmen as he worked on a gold mining project.

    Blais and Tacchetto set off in his car on Nov. 20 from the northern Italian town of Vigonza, outside Padua. They travelled through France, Spain, Morocco, Mauritania and Mali before arriving in Burkina Faso. They were last seen in the city of Bobo-Dioulasso in the country’s southwest.

    Global Affairs Canada wouldn’t comment directly Saturday on Dandjinou’s comments.

    A spokeswoman issued a short statement saying the department was aware of a Canadian missing in Burkina Faso and that officials were in contact with family and providing assistance.

    Brittany Fletcher said in an email that Canadian officials in Burkina Faso are also in contact with local authorities.

    “The Government of Canada’s first priority is always the safety and security of its citizens. For this reason, we will not comment on or release any information which may compromise ongoing efforts or endanger the safety of Canadians,” she wrote. 

    Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press




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    PEI Green party candidate Josh Underhay and son killed in canoeing accident

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  • CHARLOTTETOWN — With only a few days before voters were to go to the polls in Prince Edward Island, the Green party suspended all campaigning Saturday after the sudden death of one of its candidates and his young son.

    The party confirmed Saturday that Josh Underhay and his son died in a canoeing accident on Friday afternoon.

    Voting day is Tuesday.

    Green party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker, whose party has been leading in the polls, issued a statement saying he was bereft when he learned of Underhay’s death.

    “Josh has been a dear friend and colleague of mine for many years, as a volunteer, musician, passionate cycling advocate and Green party supporter,” Bevan-Baker said.

    “He has touched the lives of everyone who knew him, including the students he taught, fellow musicians and members of the party … Josh brought humour, enthusiasm and boundless energy to every situation.”

    Bevan-Baker said the Greens would suspend all election-related activities for the remainder of the campaign.

    The province’s three other major parties suspended all campaign events scheduled for Saturday.

    The RCMP issued a statement saying two canoeists were reported missing Friday after they failed to show up at an agreed pick-up point along the Hillsborough River, which cuts through the middle of the Island and empties into the Northumberland Strait near Charlottetown.

    Firefighters, police and a volunteer ground search team were called in to look for the pair.

    Police would not identify the victims, but a Green party official confirmed Underhay and his son were later found in the water near their capsized canoe.

    Though they were wearing flotation devices, both were declared dead at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown, police said.

    Police asked for the public’s help as they continued their investigation, saying they’d like to hear from anyone who saw a red canoe on the Hillsborough River on Friday afternoon.

    Underhay, a married father of two boys, had been the Greens’ candidate in District 9, Charlottetown-Hillsborough Park.

    According to a profile on the party’s website, he was a teacher at Birchwood Intermediate School in Charlottetown, as well as an experienced musician and a student of languages, speaking English, French, Spanish, Mandarin and Czech.

    “I simply cannot imagine how much (Underhay) will be missed,” Bevan-Baker said.

    “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends, and I know we will all join together to provide each other with support and comfort during this terrible time.”

    Progressive Conservative Leader Dennis King issued a statement saying the tragic loss of Underhay and his son marked “a heart-breaking day for all Islanders.”

    “It is a reminder of how fragile life is and how often we take it for granted,” King said. “Josh was a dedicated teacher and community leader who had a love for life and a passion for people. He was an advocate, talented musician and friend to many.”

    The Green party has been leading in opinion polls since August, but the race remains too close to call when the margin of error in recent surveys is factored in.

    Premier Wade MacLauchlan’s Liberals will be seeking a fourth term on Tuesday, which has prompted some critics to suggest the party has overstayed its welcome.

    The close numbers have also raised the possibility of a minority government, which would mark a historic moment for the Island. The last time a minority was elected in P.E.I. was 1890.

    The Conservatives have been plagued by infighting for the past eight years, churning through no fewer than six leaders, including King, who was elected in February.

    However, the party enjoyed a boost in the polls the following month, leaving them in a virtual tie with the Liberals.

    As for the Island’s New Democrats, led by Joe Byrne, their poll numbers have remained at single digits for the past year.

    — By Michael MacDonald in Halifax

    The Canadian Press


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    Environment

    Flood waters take a life in western Quebec after rising river sweeps away road

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  • MONTREAL — One person has died amid flooding in western Quebec, after rising river levels swept away part of a road in the Outaouais region overnight.

    Police confirmed the death in a tweet Saturday morning, posting a photo of a gaping hole along the road in the Municipality of Pontiac, about 30 km northwest of Ottawa.

    Authorities have released few details about the victim, saying the accident is under investigation.

    Pontiac, which sits along the Ottawa River, is one of at least three municipalities in the Outaouais region to declare states of emergency, along with Saint-Andre-Avellin and Val-des-Monts.

    On Friday, both the Quebec and New Brunswick governments called for federal assistance — including Canadian Forces soldiers on the ground — as the provinces brace for heavy spring flooding this weekend.

    Quebec Public Security Minister Genevieve Guilbault told a news conference in Quebec City that the risk level hasn’t changed in recent days, but authorities now expect the brunt of flooding will begin on Sunday and last longer than expected.

    While the situation could change depending on the weather, Guilbault said she elected to ask for assistance as citizens scrambled to protect their homes while heavy rain warnings were in effect for much of southern Quebec.

    Water levels are already high and were expected to rise sharply with warm temperatures, snowmelt runoff and the heavy rainfall in the forecast until Saturday.

    “My only priority is the safety of citizens,” Guilbault said, shortly after the request for help was accepted by Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.

    “I will spare no effort over the next few days to ensure the safety of citizens.”

    Officials in several communities are worried the flooding could be even worse than the record flooding of 2017 that forced thousands from their homes.

    Guilbault said Canadian Forces brass were discussing with provincial officials where to deploy military resources. She added she’d spoken directly with Brig.-Gen. Jennie Carignan and added the duration of their stay will depend largely on the situation on the ground.

    Across Quebec, municipalities have been preparing sandbags and reinforcing homes as the rain is expected to intensify in the coming hours.

    “Today is an important day, we’re predicting we’ll reach the water levels reached in 2017 in the next 24 hours and even exceed it,” said Ginette Bellemare, the acting mayor of Trois-Rivieres, Que., about halfway between Montreal and Quebec City.

    “For our citizens, it’s a race against time. They must mobilize and protect their property.”

    Guilbault said the province will also allow stores — usually closed on Easter Sunday — to remain open this weekend so residents can stock up on supplies.

    Thomas Blanchet, a spokesman for the province’s public safety department, said residents should be ready for a sharp spike in water levels that could come quickly, and he implored them to follow the instructions of local officials.

    Blanchet said while there are no official evacuation orders in the province, some municipalities have issued preventative orders, such as Rigaud and Pointe-Fortune in southwestern Quebec.

    Rigaud officials reported they expect a rapid rise in water flows on Saturday.

    “The latest data confirms that water levels as high as those observed at the height of the May 2017 flood could be reached, depending on the amount of rain received, by next Monday,” the town said in a release.

    In Laval, just north of Montreal, officials said some 1,500 homes and businesses were under flood watch. In Montreal, Mayor Valerie Plante toured various parts of the city under flood watch.

    Plante said the boroughs were well prepared, having learned lessons from record floods two years ago.

    “We’re putting all our energy, but in the end Mother Nature decides,” Plante said.

    In Saint-Raymond, about 60 kilometres northwest of the provincial capital, 24 seniors in three residences have been moved to higher ground as the Ste-Anne River levels continue to rise.

    Earlier this week, the Chaudiere River burst its banks and flooded a large part of downtown Beauceville, about 90 kilometres south of Quebec City. Officials there called it the worst flooding since 1971, with 230 homes and businesses flooded. At least 28 people remained unable to return home on Friday.

    “With the forecast that we have, we will have heavy rainfall over the corridor from Outaouais to the Lower St. Lawrence,” Blanchet said. “Those regions have a high risk of flood right now with the precipitation that’s announced and the warm temperatures that will increase the snowmelt.”

    The Canadian Press




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